• n 11 January 1966, the Modern Art world lost what many considered one of the greatest artists of the twentieth centruy – Alberto Giacometti. This is the premise for “Eternal Gaze” by indie film maker Sam Chen. Winning a multitude of awards from the Best Animated Short for the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater to the Best Independent Animation for the International 3D Awards, “Eternal Gaze” not only tells the story of one of modern art’s unsung heroes, it also reflects a remarkable journey for Chen. A computer engineer working at SGI for over 7 years, Chen has spent the last two and a half years working on what he describes as a “poignant story about an artist, his art, and reciprocated love.” The 16-minute film follows the last 9 years of Giacometti’s life, journeying into the depths of his tortured psyche and exploring the relationship of human conditions such as despair, love and hope, and Giacometti’s art. Eternal Gaze is a heartfelt story and a loving tribute to one of the greatest but least recognized artists of our time. I recently spoke to Sam Chen, who gives insight into the production of this internationally acclaimed short film.

    Leonard Teo: What's your background? How did you get into 3D and what are you doing now?

    Sam Chen: I'm one of those Computer Science Engineer turned CG Artist types. There seems to be a trend in this sort of career evolution these days especially for do-it-yourself CG filmmakers. This shouldn't be a surprise because this relatively new digital art form requires a strong background in both the arts and the sciences.

    After graduating from UCLA with a Computer Science & Engineering degree, I worked at SGI for over 7 years as a CG specialist and eventually, a Creative Director in their Digital Content department. While there, I helped pioneer content-creation for VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) and eventually started to get hooked on Alias PowerAnimator. Then Maya v1.0 came out and I knew at that point that this was a tool that I needed to master. But in retrospect, my interest in 3D really started around the time Pixar's "Adventure of Andre & Wally B." and "Luxo Jr." first came out in the mid 80's.

    Now that "Eternal Gaze" is done, I've been spending the last three and a half months doing the festival circuit and showing my film all over North America. I'm also catching my breath and getting ready for the media blitz surrounding its recent win at Siggraph Electronic Theater.

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    Above: Sam Chen, the film maker behind "Eternal Gaze" (top), which won the Best Animated Short for the SIGGRAPH 2003 Electronic Theater. Inspired by the life of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century -- ALBERTO GIACOMETTI -- "Eternal Gaze" follows the artist through the last 9 years of his remarkable life, and journeys into the depths of his famously tortured psyche.

  • Leonard Teo: How did Eternal Gaze come about? How were you inspired to do this film? What were your aspirations?

    Sam Chen: The idea of "Eternal Gaze" came about after my Stanford life-drawing instructor assigned us to read an 18-day diary by a young American writer about what it was like to pose for the late modern artist, Alberto Giacometti. I was blown away by the unique way that Giacometti saw the world and his purity as an artist. I felt a strange kindred connection with him immediately -- one that I've never felt so strongly before. I then decided to set up camp at the Stanford Art Library and embarked on learning everything I could about this enigmatic figure. After about 6 months, a screenplay eventually emerged out of this effort.

    In making "Eternal Gaze," I was driven mostly by my own curiosity and the desire to make a film that I wanted to see. Up to this point, I felt CG had been used primarily in the family-entertainment genre, and on the other end of the spectrum, for abstract art or academic types of animations. I wanted to make a film that looked like "Citizen Kane," with the suspense and plotting of Hitchcock, and the mood and slow burn of "Blade Runner." As a big Pixar fan, I also wanted it to have a big heart ultimately. I was curious to see whether I could pull off such an ambitious project by myself -- at least all the visual and storytelling aspects of it. With today's tools and hardware, I knew that it was technologically feasible. But with the sheer complexity and the challenge of sustaining the audience's attention for 16 minutes with a single character that doesn't speak a word of dialogue, was the million-dollar question.

    Leonard Teo: Being a silent film, was there anything special that had to be taken into consideration?

    Sam Chen: Well, it's not exactly accurate to say that it's a "silent" film. It merely follows the tradition of many animated shorts that rely solely on concise storytelling, compelling animation and characters, and great music and sound design -- as if they were characters in themselves (which by the way were expertly created by my composer and sound designer Jamey Scott). Given that, the storytelling, animation, and editing had to be that much tighter and clearer, and the character poses, emotions, and intentions that much stronger. A lot of attention was paid especially to the eyes of the Giacometti character.

    With careful attention to historical facts and details, the works of art featured in "Eternal Gaze" are near-exact digital reproductions from Giacometti's lifework -- each handcrafted to have the "agitated" surface and the elongated disposition that his sculptures are famous for.

    Leonard Teo: What was the most challenging aspect of creating Eternal Gaze?

    Sam Chen: Technically, the most challenging aspects in the making of "Eternal Gaze" involved getting Giacometti's hair to look natural and convincing, and on the more mundane side, dealing with the asset management hell that comes naturally with a 16-minute multi-layered production that this film became.

    Creatively, anyone that has ever attempted an animated CG human character understands the challenges involved - the hair, the clothing, the walk cycle, the facial expressions, the nuances, the personality, the soul. In retrospect, it was a constant struggle to maintain a precarious happy medium between realism and caricature. Too much of one could have undermined the suspension of disbelief given the nature and subject matter of this film.

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  • Leonard Teo: Tell us about the production process and how Eternal Gaze took shape from concept to finished render/composite.

    Sam Chen: Having learned from past personal mistakes, I learned not to rush into production too hastily and to delay touching the computer for as long as possible until the script and the hand-drawn animatic were pretty solid. I tried to spend as much effort on the screenwriting phase, or more accurately, the storyboarding and re-storyboarding phase for as long as my patience could tolerate. Only then would jumping on the computer make any sense. Like many animation projects at this point, it's just a matter of refining the shots taking each from pencil sketches, to rough layout, blocking animation, final animation, and eventually rendering and compositing.

    So with 220 shots slated over a running time of 16 minutes, on any given day, I could be working on 5 shots at a time with each in various phases of the pipeline. As each shot completed a phase, it was dropped into the non-linear editor timeline to check for flow, continuity, and emotional impact. So it's a constant in-out, microscopic-macroscopic type of workflow with the occasional popping up to the highest level to make sure the "Big Picture" was still resonating ultimately. It certainly helped to be schizophrenic too.

    Leonard Teo: As the film is B+W, did that ease things up on the texturing/lighting/ composition?

    Sam Chen: Working in black & white actually simplified a few things while introducing new issues at the same time. For example, the human flesh tone is one of the most challenging things to reproduce correctly in CG. But with b&w, it's less of an issue. This freed me up to focus more on composition and form without being distracted by colors. The result is hopefully a visually stronger film.

    In achieving the 3 very different lighting schemes required, this is where my practical experience in traditional b&w photography came in handy. Act 1 has a neutral look while the lighting quickly turned dark and menacing in Act 2. In Act 3, it's ethereal and heavenly. I was pleasantly surprised at how well CG was able to mimick the b&w filmic look that I was after. It is my hope that others will push CGI in the direction of b&w even more and come up with some amazingly looking films.

    Leonard Teo: Tell us about modelling, animating and rendering Alberto. From his basic model, to rigging to his hair.

    Sam Chen: The modeling of the Giacometti character really started from his head. Believe it or not, it's basically nothing but a NURBS sphere with lots of CV pushing and pulling, along with the strategic insertion of isoparms here and there. I chose to do most things in NURBS because at the time I embarked on modeling the main character, subdivision surfaces were still not reliable and efficient enough. Ultimately, Giacometti was modeled with a combination of NURBS, Polygons, and SubD Surfaces depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each paradigm.

    In rigging Giacometti, only his legs had IK while the arms used only FK. There was no cloth simulation involved so any cloth-like flapping were animated by hand using bones that were rigged within for instance, his jacket and pants. As for the face, instead of using Morph Targets, a bone-based system was used to simulate the contraction and expansion of facial muscles.

    So depending on what expressions or emotions were required, I spent much effort mastering and understanding the interesting relationship between human emotions and which facial muscles were responsible for them.

    For animation, a hybrid pose-to-pose method was used where after the key poses were set, there was still enough room for straight ahead spontaneity. Some of the best animation moments involved "happy accidents." I tried hard to recognize these serendipitous moments and let them happen organically. That's when animation becomes adventurous and the most fun. By the way, 100-percent of the animation in "Eternal Gaze" was hand-keyframed. No mocap and simulaton were ever involved.

    For rendering, scenes were often separated and rendered into multiple layers for better control of lighting, and depth-of-field. Depending on the scene, there could be a separate layer for background, character, hair, sculpture, shadows, smoke, rain, and extreme foreground elements. Area Lights were used as much as possible as they tend to look more natural with softer highlights and controllable dimensions. Hair was always rendered on separate passes and composited onto the character layer in AfterEffects. The final step usually involved precise control of depth-of-field, selective defocusing, layered glows, and final value adjustments. [CGN]

    Production Statistics
    Timeframe: 2.5 years of production, 0.5 years of research and story development.
    Software: Photoshop for textures; Maya for 3D; AfterEffects for post; and Premiere for editing.
    Hardware: Various Windows PC's including a Sony VAIO laptop. Canopus DVStorm for video output.
    Credited artists: Sam Chen (screenwriter, director, producer, animator, modeler, editor, technical director, designer); Jamey Scott (music composer, sound designer, co-producer)
    Coffee consumed: 500 gallons and counting...!

    Leonard Teo is the Editor of CGNetworks, email him here. Eternal Gaze will be showing at the SIGGRAPH 2003 Electronic Theater, 26-31 July 2003, San Diego, California. For more information about Eternal Gaze, visit the official website at www.EternalGaze.com

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